Colonel Sanders' Battle to Become a Fast Food Icon

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Bettmann/Getty Images

As one of the first fast food establishments to branch out internationally, Kentucky Fried Chicken has spread its southern hospitality to the far reaches of the world. The company’s founder, Harland David Sanders — you probably know him as Colonel Sanders — is an icon in American restaurant history.

What you may not know is that before the Colonel became a fried chicken mogul, he led a pretty unbelievable life. For starters, he wasn't even a real colonel, and he got fired from most of his early jobs. The incredible true story of Colonel Sanders is finger-lickin' good reading!

Became Man of the House at Age 5

Harland David Sanders, later known as Colonel Sanders, is most associated with the state of Kentucky, although he was born in Indiana in 1890 as the oldest of three kids. His father worked an 80-acre farm until he broke his leg in a terrible accident, and then he became a butcher.

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Photo Courtesy: Kentucky Fried Chicken/Wikimedia Commons

His parents were deeply religious, especially his strict mother, who warned her children about the perils of alcohol, gambling and tobacco. According to writer Alan Bellows, whistling on Sunday was also unacceptable. His father died when Harland was only 5 years old, and he took care of his younger siblings.

Learned to Cook at Age 7

Harland's widowed mother, Margaret Ann, had to start working in a tomato cannery. The young "Colonel" learned how to cook, so his siblings could eat. By age 7, Sanders was already adept at preparing vegetables, cooking meat and baking "light bread," a complicated art.

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Photo Courtesy: John Olson/Getty Images

According to Sanders, "When I was 7, I got so I could make light bread. I made the yeast, set the sponge, made the dough, baked off the bread. When I was done, I had the prettiest loaf of light bread you ever saw."

Hired and Fired at Age 10

Following his father's death, Sanders' first outside job was as a farm hand when he was only 10 years old. A local farmer named Charlie Norris, who lived about 2 miles from his house, gave him a job.

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Photo Courtesy: Photos of the Past/Flickr

He admitted, "When I went to work, Charlie Norris put me in his wood lot clearing new ground for him with an ax and a saw. There were bluebirds and red squirrels and other things that attracted a boy's interest, and I didn't clear as much ground as I ought to have cleared," so Norris fired him.

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Math Made Him Quit the Seventh Grade

Margaret Ann remarried in 1902, and Sanders found it challenging to get along with his stepfather. His teen angst caused him to drop out of school because he "lost out on a wrestling match with algebra." Sanders gave up on school and entered the workforce.

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Photo Courtesy: National Library of Ireland/Flickr

He explained, "Stepfathers are not usually very kind to their new wife’s children, and this one didn’t take to us either. So, I went out again into the world myself and worked on a farm another year or two. I was just 13 when I did that."

Started a Long Career with Railroads

At age 13, Sanders began painting horse carriages in Indianapolis. A year later, he moved to southern Indiana to follow in his father's footsteps on the farm. In 1906, Sanders asked his mother for permission to move to New Albany, Indiana, to live with his uncle.

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Photo Courtesy: Norwood Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons

After receiving a recommendation, Sanders became a conductor for his uncle's streetcar company, and it became an industry that the future chicken magnate spent much of his professional life pursuing, but there was always a thirst for adventure he couldn’t escape.

Lied to Join the Army

That October, Sanders decided to lie about his age by forging enlistment documents to join the Army. However, he didn’t spend an entire career in the military, and he didn’t receive multiple promotions to become a colonel. He was only in the Army for a few months.

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Photo Courtesy: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

Most of his enlisted time was as a wagoner in Cuba. He completed his service agreement and received an honorable discharge in February 1907. After his military time was complete, he moved to Alabama, where another uncle resided. Sanders' brother also left home and their stepfather to be with him.

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Fired as a Fireman

Sanders took a job with the Northern Alabama Railroad cleaning ash pans out of locomotives and making sure they were ready for the next trip. One day, the fireman didn't show up for work, so the engineer brought Sanders along to manage the steam from the locomotive.

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Photo Courtesy: John Lucas (Creative Commons)/Geograph.org.uk

He did a great job and never got his face dirty, so the engineer brought him on as a full-time fireman. One day, he felt sick and took a rest in the mail coach. As he returned, the trainmaster noticed him climbing over the coal tender and fired him for insubordination.

Lived on $0.70 a Day

After Harland moved to Jasper, he met his wife, Josephine, when he was 18 years old. They were married a year later, and Josephine gave birth to his daughter, Margaret. Harland still worked for the railroad, but with the "extra" gang, who performed special trackwork, like laying new ties. He made 70 cents per day.

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Photo Courtesy: Kinsey Brothers Photographs/Wikimedia Commons

"Those $0.70 a day on the "extra" gang would about pay my expenses and my young wife's keep too. It's hard to imagine that in those days. If it was used right, $0.70 a day could run a house."

Fought His Own Client

Sanders entered the coal industry while concurrently studying law through La Salle Extension University. He eventually quit working in coal to practice law. After a wreck, the railroad's attorneys tried to convince the victims to settle for $1.

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Photo Courtesy: memory.loc.gov/Wikimedia Commons

Sanders' autobiography states that he quit his legal career because he didn't want to be a lawyer anymore. According to his biographer, Josh Ozersky, Sanders' legal career ended after a courtroom fight with one of his clients. He used the money he made from legal fees to move back to Indiana with his mother.

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Fired from Insurance Sales

Following his return to Indiana, Sanders landed a job as a section hand with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He saw his cousins making a decent living and thought to himself, "I had the same blood in me that those other boys had. If they could make a living and wear white-collared shirts, I could too."

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Photo Courtesy: William J Kimmerle/Wikimedia Commons

"So, I borrowed a suit of clothes from a cousin and went to Jeffersonville" to sell life insurance. He was outstanding and became one of the greatest producers in the office's history. In a repeat of history, however, Prudential eventually fired him for insubordination.

Started a Ferry Business

Harland's entrepreneurial spirit took over, and he decided that he didn’t want to work for someone else anymore. Even after all this, he still wasn't even close to entering the fried chicken industry quite yet. In 1920, he established a ferry boat company that operated on the Ohio River.

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Photo Courtesy: United States Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Successfully acquiring enough funding, he also served as a minority shareholder. The business was a success, and he started to work as a secretary for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce. However, he wasn’t as successful in that role and decided to resign after less than a year.

Failed at a Lamp Business

With the shares from his successful ferry business, Sanders earned enough to start a company that manufactured acetylene farm lamps. "Those were wonderful things for farmers who’d been living by coal oil lamps," Sanders explained. "A farm wife could even cook over acetylene light."

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Photo Courtesy: Erika Cristina/Pexels

Unfortunately, Sanders didn't keep proper track of his traveling salespeople, he expanded his business a little too quickly, and he had to deal with some stiff competition from an electric lamp company called Delco. "Little by little, I lost everything I’d put in the business, and I wound up broke."

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Car Accident and 42-Foot Fall

Sanders' move to Kentucky didn't involve fried chicken; it involved tire sales. One day, he was driving across a bridge, and the right cable broke. His car fell 42 feet, and he suffered some severe injuries. "There wasn't a place on my body that wasn't black and blue, and my head was split from one of my eyebrows through the forehead."

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/National Park Service

"I also had a fractured forearm. When I fell, I was knocked out," Sanders recalled. The neighbors found him and wanted to call a doctor. "I told them, 'Don't get a doctor. I'll tell you when I want a doctor.'"

Got a Job While Hitchhiking

Sanders lost his tire sales territory due to the accident and found himself unemployed again. He didn't have a car, so he hitchhiked to Louisville to find a job. The person who picked him up was a state manager for Standard Oil, so the ride ended up serving as a job interview.

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The manager liked Harland and asked him to run a service station. The previous leaseholder was only selling gas to his boating friends and ignored the automobile and truck market. After Standard Oil took over, none of the locals returned.

Delivered Babies

Sanders turned the business around with his excellent customer service skills. Word spread, and it wasn't long before he traded the service station in for a larger one with a garage. The Shell Company found out about his ability to sell gas and offered him a rent-free service station in the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky.

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Photo Courtesy: Kentucky Fried Chicken/Wikimedia Commons

Because of the Great Depression, many of the mines shut down, and Sanders didn't sell much gas. Since no one in the area was involved in obstetrical work, Sanders delivered babies for out-of-work husbands who couldn’t afford to pay doctors.

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The First Chicken Business

Sanders and his family lived at the Shell station rent-free. The company built a two-bedroom house with a kitchen at the back of the station, so he decided to start a little restaurant business using his lifelong culinary knowledge. He also employed some marketing skills by painting "Sanders' Service Station and Café" on the sides of barns for 150 miles in each direction.

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Photo Courtesy: John Olson/Getty Images

After two years, Sanders finally started to make and serve his famous fried chicken. A new truck route opened along the path of his restaurant, and word-of-mouth advertising led to lots of drivers stopping in regularly for a hot meal.

Involved in a Shootout

A large chunk of Sanders' business came from the advertisements he painted along the routes to his gas station and restaurant. A local competitor named Matt Stewart found one painted over one of his ads that directed people away from his business. He took it a little personally.

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Stewart showed up at the Shell station and shot one of Sanders' employees, who died from the wound. He was then convicted of murder and sent to prison. The incident all but eliminated any possible competition Sanders had, and his business thrived.

Birth of “Colonel Sanders”

"I don't care whether it's a king, a preacher or a potentate who comes to see you," began Sanders' credo. "If you give him good fried chicken with mashed potatoes, chicken cracklin' gravy, and hot biscuits and vegetables, you're giving him the best the American table can offer."

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The popularity of his restaurants grew, and Sanders became a Kentucky hero. Governor Ruby Laffoon decided to bestow upon him honors for outstanding service to the community and the state. As Kentucky Colonel, Sanders became solidified as one of Kentucky's most prominent residents.

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Hotel Destroyed by Fire

After a visit from one of the nation's most well-known food critics, Duncan Hines — yes, the name once belonged to a real person — he received an incredible review. The critique in Adventures in Good Eating stated that it was "a very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies. Continuous 24-hour service. Sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits."

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Four months later, his Kentucky motel and restaurant burned down, but that didn’t get him down. In its place, Sanders erected a 140-seat restaurant and motel. He had a mistress at this time, and he even entrusted her with the management of the North Corbin, Kentucky, establishment.

Discovering the "Original Recipe"

Colonel Sanders' pan-fried his chicken from the beginning. It was a slow process that usually took around 30 minutes for each order, with the risk of coming out unevenly cooked. He spent a lot of time developing his secret recipe that includes 11 herbs and spices. While experimenting with the original recipe, he also discovered an efficient method for frying the chicken.

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Photo Courtesy: Fred Ross/Getty Images

In 1939, he started using a pressure fryer that cooked moist and tasty fried chicken in less than 10 minutes. By July 1940, he had perfected what became known as "Original Recipe."

Keeping the Secret

For years, the Colonel's "Original Recipe" has been one of the most well-kept secrets in business history, and that secrecy gives the fried chicken an edge in an ever-evolving industry. Even Wendy's owner, Dave Thomas, applauded the concept of a secret recipe for its marketing genius.

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The company keeps a signed copy of the recipe in a safe inside a vault at KFC's headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky. Griffith Laboratories produces half of the blend, while McCormick makes the rest. An 1883 book on secret recipes alleges that the mix only contains four ingredients. We’re skeptical — it sure tastes like 11!

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World War II

After leaving his North Corbin restaurant and motel to his mistress, Claudia Ledington-Price, to run, Sanders sold the Asheville location due to rationing from World War II. He briefly moved to Seattle before the government asked him to oversee cafeterias at Ordnance Works in Tennessee. Later, he became an Assistant Cafeteria Manager in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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Photo Courtesy: John Olson/Getty Images

By 1947, the Colonel and Josephine had become distant and decided to divorce. He and his mistress, Claudia, were still close and decided to get married in 1949. The couple remained together until the end of his life.

Kentucky Fried Chicken

Sanders knew he had to diversify to spread the word about his famous chicken. He franchised his secret recipe for the first time to Pete Harman from Salt Lake City, Utah. Harman operated one of the most prominent restaurants in the city. Within the first year, his restaurant sales nearly tripled, including a 75% increase in fried chicken.

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Photo Courtesy: Great-Grandson, @Clintonite33/Twitter

Harman hired sign painter Don Anderson, who focused on southern hospitality when he came up with the name "Kentucky Fried Chicken." Based on the success, other restaurant owners paid Colonel Sanders $0.04 per chicken to franchise the concept.

The Colonel's Iconic Look

In 1950, Sanders was recommissioned as a Kentucky Colonel by Governor Lawrence Wetherby. After his recommissioning in 1950, Colonel Sanders began to dress in a black coat, which he later switched to white. He grew the infamous goatee that started to reach down to the string tie. Also, he began referring to himself as "The Colonel."

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Photo Courtesy: Bettmann/Getty Images

His friends followed suit, and what began as a joke led to a permanent name. For the last 20 years of Colonel Sanders' life, he wore nothing else — at least publicly. If he wasn’t dressed in his iconic garb, he refused to go out in public.

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KFC-ing the Country

Due to reduced traffic, 65-year-old Colonel Sanders had to close down his North Corbin restaurant. He made the mistake of thinking that it would remain open indefinitely, and he needed to compensate for the loss. Armed with a small savings account and a $105-per-month Social Security income, he set out across the United States to further franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken.

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Photo Courtesy: Fairfax Media Archives/Getty Images

He and Claudia established their new headquarters in Shelbyville in 1959. After that, Colonel Sanders hit the road in his car to seek out restaurants. He cooked his chicken for restaurant owners, negotiated franchise terms and often slept in the back of his car.

International Expansion

It wasn't long before people started to approach Sanders about possible franchise options. The Colonel handled the business aspect of their company, while Claudia mixed the Original Recipe blend and shipped it to the restaurants. His franchise business blew up, and Kentucky Fried Chicken became one of the first U.S. fast food chains to franchise internationally.

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Photo Courtesy: Zhang Peng/Getty Images

The restaurants popped up in Canada and Mexico before heading south to open a location in Jamaica. Sanders also brought his chicken across the pond and opened a Kentucky Fried Chicken location in the United Kingdom.

Rapid Expansion and Sale

Colonel Sanders could barely keep up with the growth. He was able to protect his chicken cooking method with a patent, and then he trademarked the catch phrase "It's Finger-Lickin' Good" in 1963. Before he knew it, Kentucky Fried Chicken boasted more than 600 locations, and the work became too much for an aging Sanders.

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Photo Courtesy: Mr. Blue MauMau/Flickr

In 1964, the 73-year-old Colonel was offered $2 million for Kentucky Fried Chicken. The amount would have been around $17 million in today's dollars. Fortunately, he sold it to another Kentucky businessman and lawyer, John Y. Brown, Jr., who later became the governor.

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Sanders Sued by KFC

Even though U.S. business operations transferred hands, Colonel Sanders retained the Canadian franchises. He also remained as the company's symbolic figurehead and spokesperson. The Colonel traveled more than 200,000 miles a year making surprise visits to franchises in addition to making television appearances.

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Photo Courtesy: Dan Lindsay/Wikimedia Commons

During his visits, Colonel Sanders ensured quality control by trying the food at different franchises. If he didn't like the food, he was known for throwing it on the floor and calling it "damned slop." Sanders was even sued by KFC's parent company for referring to the gravy as "sludge" with a "wallpaper taste" when the recipe changed.

Only Non-KFC with the Original Recipe

With his newfound fortune, Colonel Sanders and Claudia reopened their Shelbyville location under the name "Claudia Sanders, The Colonel's Lady." They served KFC-esque chicken as part of their full menu. After talk of expanding Claudia's, he was sued again by KFC's parent company.

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Photo Courtesy: @bylagarto/Twitter

They settled, and Sanders sold the restaurant. It currently operates under the name Claudia Sanders Dinner House. It’s the only restaurant outside of Kentucky Fried Chicken that is authorized to sell Original Recipe chicken. He continued to criticize KFC's gravy and once called the flour mix a "fried dough ball stuck on some chicken."

The Death of the Colonel

Colonel Sanders was diagnosed with acute leukemia and passed away shortly afterward. He was extremely active and still appeared at franchise locations in his white suits up until a month before his passing. His body was on display in the rotunda at Kentucky State Capital before moving to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Chapel for his funeral.

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Photo Courtesy: @PolkCoSheriff/Twitter

More than 1,000 people attended his funeral service to remember the honorary colonel. Claudia buried him at Cave Hill Cemetery wearing his iconic white suit and black string tie — but likely with no chicken.

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